By KATE HALIM
Elsie Ijorogu-Reed is the founder of Delta Women, a non-governmental organisation that is constantly put off by the underlying belief that women are abused because they asked for it by their conduct.
Her experience being a voice for those women who have been silenced by various experiences, have earned her some enemies as they challenge her to keep quiet because they hate the truth and see her NGO as a threat.
Elsie told Saturday Sun in an interview that her aim is to ensure that every woman in need irrespective of her origin, gets her due. She also revealed that vigilance, action and attention are urgent measures that should be put in place to ensure that women are protected in Nigeria.
Why did you set up your organisation and why the name, DeltaWomen?
Delta Women is a non-governmental organisation founded primarily to empower the women of Delta State, Nigeria. The organisation advocates for women rights, creates awareness and holds seminars on child abuse and campaigns on female sexual harassment in higher educational institutions.It is involved in awareness creation through blogging, publications, open letters and the use of social networks. Delta Women was set up primarily to transform women in Delta State by providing them with the knowledge and tools they need to take their rightful place in society.
Almost three years after, what would you say is the greatest accomplishment of your NGO?
DeltaWomen runs a blog that gets a minimum of 1000 hits a day. We have our Ezine that reaches about 500 readers each month. For two years in a row, Delta Women’s Volunteers have won the UN Volunteer Award (2011 and 2012). We have also succeeded in bringing the attention of a community without a school in Delta State to the government. It was a forgotten community that nobody knew about and kids had to walk four kilometers to a school without chairs. We also hold eye tests, so that people can rectify their eye issues – the joy it puts on the faces of the people at the grassroots level is inspiring. This might be the first glasses some have ever owned, the joy and the happiness of helping people with their sight has been our greatest achievement.
We work with women. Women from everywhere – though our primary reach is with women in Delta State. We have rescued rape victims, and have discovered the inconvenient truth about how their families and police officials pressured them to settle for nothing. It was hard getting support from anywhere on rehabilitating them, but we fought strong.
Our work is, therefore, for every woman in need, to get her due. We take up comprehensive counselling, offer free health check-ups and the like. Women that had cervical cancer were offered medical treatment. Our free eye test and glasses held in Delta State is open to everyone regardless of state of origin. Besides this, we offer on-ground vocational training at our centres, and micro-financing facilities. I believe that our greatest success will truly come when we achieve a society built on equality of gender.
We have seen tangible impact in the form of awareness expansion. People come back to us and tell us how their lives have changed because of the information we offered them, because of the help we gave them. People have told us how they averted greater danger in their lives with the good help of knowledge. Women in Delta State have also contacted us when they suffered harassment or rape.
Have you ever had a situation that threatened the core values of your person while running this NGO?
People challenge us for many reasons, some because we have threatened their institution of beliefs, like through our anti-Female Genital Mutilation campaigns and domestic abuse awareness. Some feel we talk too much and must be kept quiet. While others challenge us because they hate the truth and see us as a threat.
How did you handle it?
We walked on unfazed. No one can deter us from our task, especially since we are in an untiring pursuit of service.
Why Delta Women? Are you from Delta State?
Yes, I am from Delta State. But, my intention is not only for women in Delta State to be empowered, but for women everywhere to be empowered. Though the focus is Delta State, we do not turn people from neighbouring state or other communities in Nigeria away. During our eye tests in Delta State we do not ask people for their state of origin. We treat everybody. When we held our eye test in Oha in May last year, about five per cent of the people were not resident or from Delta State. Another example is our counselling services and our first medical outreach, which was held in Lagos state for cervical cancer test. Only 10 per cent of the people tested were from Delta State, and 100 per cent of those treated for cervical cancer were from Lagos State.
How would you assess government’s performance in relation to issues affecting girls and women?
It is not good enough. Nigeria’s culture has deep-rooted ideals in antagonism to women’s rights in it. People fight you when you say anything contrary to what they believe in. Some time we face challenges from even the victims and their families, as they believe it is best to remain silent than be laughed at by people. When dealing with rape victims, the families beg the organisation to stop the case or keep quiet saying they do not want any trouble. Also in the case of female genital mutilation, women believe it makes them clean, and that an uncircumcised person was unclean. Some women believe that if she was not circumcised, she would have been wayward and based on that, she has to circumcise her own daughter, changing that mindset was really challenging. Also, the father always dominate the house so if he believes that circumcision or early child marriage is the way to go, the woman can not oppose it, for fear of being thrown out of the house with no livelihood.
How best can we handle the rising cases of rape and domestic abuse in Nigeria?
We need to combat the mindsets, and the thriving market for sex. In doing that, we must protect and not punish women who prostitute or are forced to engage in prostitution or commercial sex work. We try to target the mindsets, and try to spread awareness. We provide education, shelter, counselling and also direct them to places they can get help or resources. Vigilance, action and attention are urgent measures that should be put in place to ensure that women are protected in Nigeria.
Do you think successful women have done enough in mentoring young girls these days?
Of course, but the fight is never over. One must sustain influence and assistance, for it is only when we lead by example that we succeed.
What do you feel is lacking in today’s woman?
Today’s woman is lacking a feeling of self-empowerment. Patriarchy teaches you to believe in this disgusting notion that a woman out on the streets at night is valueless, this filthy understanding that even a five-year-old girl is a sex tool, this cheap rule that a woman cannot do something or should not do something because she is a woman. And it isn’t just the men that believe this, but some of the women too. Patriarchy makes women afraid for themselves, their daughters, sisters, nieces, mothers and grandmothers. So, they inadvertently reinforce patriarchy – teaching their girls not to get raped, rather than teaching their sons not to rape. This Patriarchy is a sword that hangs on the woman’s head, because anything that assaults their virginity – which, mind you, is saddled with the honour of their whole family – assaults the honour of their family. This Patriarchy enforces a brutish mentality that if she is raped, if that honour is violated, she has nothing left to live for.
When it comes to teenage pregnancy, whose fault is it, the mother or the girl involved?
We should learn to stop playing the blame game, and work towards changing the undercurrents that let this happen. Children should be given sex education, and parents should be open to welcoming their children to tell them everything that is going on in their lives.